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Save the day: here's a story that hasn't happened yet, but perhaps it'll give you a hint of what a light-aircraft pilot might do if flying an Airbus.

Ever since reading the real-world account of Stephen Brown who answered that infamous flight attendant appeal, "Are there any pilots onboard?" I've wondered what a light-aircraft pilot could do and would need to know if I needed a replacement second on the airliner flight deck. What you're about to read here never happened. But all those long legs in the flight levels provides plenty of time to imagine the scenario. It's not as simple as it seems.

What If ...

Good thing my Airbus has a side-stick instead of a yoke. Otherwise, we would have been in serious trouble when my first officer slumped forward. I admit that I am not the world's foremost conversationalist. So I wouldn't be surprised if a first officer or two would find my droning boring enough to nod off. I didn't expect him to literally pass out.

As pilots we are directed to never assume that an airborne medical situation is fatal. That is, we never declare anyone as "deceased" no matter how it appears to us. We are always to take life-saving actions and always to hope for the best.

I told ATC that I had a medical emergency and needed a heading to the nearest "suitable airfield." I told them to stand by for the rest of the information they usually ask about. My plan was to get the aircraft pointed in the right direction and get my flight attendants working on my flying partner. Instead of an immediate heading, I got a pause and then, "Uh, it looks like the front has stalled out and there's no CAT-I fields for about 200 miles. Are you CAT-II capable today?" The approach-capability sticker showed the bad news: There was a big "inop" over the ILS Category II/III portion.

"Not today," I replied. "Get me pointed at the one with the best weather." ("Best weather" being a relative term, of course.) A heading soon followed. Two flight attendants were now struggling with my first officer in an attempt to pull him out of the seat. (Why couldn't I have had the 120-pound lanky guy instead of this one who turned sideways just to get past the cockpit door?)

I decided to find a field where I had the best chance of seeing some part of the runway but still maintaining CAT-I restrictions. Maybe the vis would cut me some slack and I could get in. But now I needed someone to help me do that, so I had the third flight attendant start searching.

A reluctant head poked its way into my flight deck and, with a timid voice, asked, "Uhhh, they said you needed someone?" This guy was about as far from my previous co-pilot as possible: thin, bald and wearing glasses. Kinda like me.


"What's your name?" I asked.

"Dan, sir."

"Great." I replied. "And call me Kevin. Only my wife has to call me sir."

He stopped fumbling with the seat belt and just stared at me. Mental note: Omit the humor during times of crisis. I shuffled that moment off and started briefing him on what I wanted him to do ... and not do.

Airbus Simple

The main thing I needed from him was simply helping with the radios so I could focus on the approach. Yet, this wasn't such an easy thing in the Airbus. For it wasn't a matter of simply slapping in a new frequency and pressing the mic button. Oh no. Due to its design, you can "lose" an assigned frequency faster than a pop star can go back into rehab.

The Airbus radios come in two parts. One has the frequency and radio reception part, and another separate panel has the microphone part, making it easy to hear one radio but actually be talking on another. I decided that Dan would only work ATC and not company frequencies. ATC could call my company for me. This was an emergency, after all.

I would have him operate the landing gear and flaps too. The gear was simple: Don't touch it until I said so. But the flaps had the possibility for error. The Airbus hates the silly notion of descending and slowing up at the same time. It's easy to get the flaps out below the proper operating speed but then speed back up out of that range. And the "Bus" had no problem announcing, and recording, that you busted it. So I stressed the importance of moving the flap lever purposefully and slowly.

Lastly, I cautioned him about giving in to curiosity. We pilots are an inquisitive bunch, especially when it comes to airplanes. And the more buttons and features it has, the more we love to figure it out. So I told him to fight the temptation to ask how things work or what this or that does. Instead, only ask me when you think that there is something so wrong that we would die from it.

First-Officer Training

He gave a little nod, seemingly taken in by it all. Yet, this was good. Better to have him hesitant than bold. I needed a helper right now, not a command presence.

I told him to focus almost entirely on hearing the headings and altitudes that we were to get. I would handle the rest. I did, however, give him a shortened version of the approach briefing. His job during the approach was listening for our approach and landing clearances, and to read me the checklist.

But that isn't a simple exercise in reading. Our checklists are not do-lists. We move all the switches and levers by habit before calling for the check. The person who reads it, or rather challenges, only recites the challenge. The answer, or response, is only given by the person who is flying. When the checklist says, "Gear ... down," the non-flying pilot saying, "Gear," and the flying pilot responds with "Down."

By now we were being vectored for Detroit, which was reporting 1/4-miles visibility in snow. I mentally reviewed the go-around procedure and prayed that I wouldn't need it.

As I prepared the Flight Management Computer, or "box," Dan started to ask me what was happening but caught himself. I finished activating the box and then stuck the landing lights out but left them off. Although we frequently turn on every single bulb when we get below 10,000 feet, it sometimes makes a difference in seeing the approach lights. For this one, I wanted every advantage.

The localizer started to budge and Dan's nervousness was palpable. No doubt he was looking at the moving localizer needle while casting a worried look at the airspeed. I dialed down the autothrottle knob to approach speed. Since the Bus' thrust levers don't physically move after you set climb power, I had to glance at the engine display to see them winding back. Airspeed bled off as the autopilot held altitude by raising the nose.

Here came the moment of truth for Dan. I called, "Flaps One," and Dan grabbed the flap handle and tried to move it. Damn. The same trap that I fell for at first. I hastily added that he should relax his hand and squeeze. The flap handle released and he slid it to the first detent. The flap display rewarded his efforts with a green indication and he relaxed a bit.

I quickly called for the next flap setting and then gear down at glideslope intercept. Dan reached hesitantly for the little gear lever and pulled it gingerly downward. Despite the gravity of the situation, I found humor in that. Practically everything on the Bus is electric. Even the emergency gear-crank handle. No matter what speed you move a lever, the gear moves at the same rate.

The Tower cleared us to land on 22L. Dan responded to them and repeated the clearance to me. I called for the last two settings of flaps and then for the landing check. We fumbled through it. He was done and would get a show ... if we got in.

Have you ever noticed how fast you descend when it is VMC out but just the opposite when it is a cruncher approach? As the altimeter crept below 1000 feet, time seemed to slow. I could even feel my own apprehension climbing. In its best synthetic, European voice, the Bus announced "100 above," and I looked up.

There was a faint but distinct flash of a strobe. I left our strobes off just for this reason. I told the panel of aviation lawyers in my mind that must be the rabbit and let the approach continue. I spied the runway touchdown lights (but never saw the threshold ones), clicked off the autopilot and pulled slightly on the sidestick. The Bus rewarded my patience with a thud of the gear. As we rolled to a stop, I could see the approaching emergency vehicles' strobe lights. Now my first officer would be their responsibility, for mine was complete.

Correct that: Ours was complete. I looked over at my new first officer and said, "Well done." He nodded in response and sighed in relief. But then, with a hopeful smile on his face, he said, "About this box ..."

Kevin Harold is an airline captain who sometimes has too much time on his hands.
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Title Annotation:IFR DIARY
Author:Harrold, Kevin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2008
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